The rising cost of education is in part attributable to the rise in the integration of technology into classrooms and on campuses. This seems counterintuitive given the current rhetoric of how online course delivery reduces the cost of education, but for traditional students in brick and mortar institutions, the rising cost associated with the technological arms race is reflected in the regular increase in technology fees students are asked to pay.
The real cost is not monetary, however. Technology in the classrooms, and as a central component of the campus experience, hinders the learning process and reinforces the perception that education is nothing more than a commercial enterprise.
The more technologically engaged students are in the classroom, the worse is student performance in the core competencies — reading, writing, history and arithmetic. Tech-based classrooms are classrooms with more distractions as it is nearly impossible to keep students from moving between what they are supposed to be doing and outside activities. Furthermore, even when students have on their screens what they’re supposed to, technology in the classroom reduces the quality of engagement. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that students who read a text online do worse on an exam than those who read the same text through a traditional medium.
Research has shown that some of these obstacles technology creates can be overcome with the right amount of training. But these same studies also show that the best such training can do is raise technology-based education to the level of traditional delivery methods, which then begs the question: Why go through all the time and expense to get right back to where you started?
Technology makes certain tasks easier, but it also puts a premium on speed and completion rather than reflection and comprehension. Tocqueville wrote of America, “nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences or of the elevated portion of the sciences than meditation” but importing technology — with its emphasis on speed and instrumentalism — into core competency classrooms we run the risk persuading students that deep meditation and careful consideration is unnecessary for mastering the humanities and sciences.
The proliferation of technology in the classroom is reflective of an educational enterprise that has embraced the commercial ethos, thus transforming education into a service industry where students are customers and teachers are service providers. The effects on education are deleterious in that we seek to provide students with what they want rather than offering them guidance as to what they need for fear of losing them to a competitor. Within this ethos there is no incentive to challenge students but instead only offer them courses with enticing names and rooms filled with the latest gadgetry. Colleges and K-12 institutions market their technology advancement as a reason why their institution is good instead of marketing the quality of education.
A traditional liberal arts education sought to, according to Peter Augustine Lawler, “open students’ eyes to the varied forms of human excellence displayed in the greatest works of philosophy and literature.” This requires a deep engagement with challenging texts that would allow students insight into the joys and limits of a life of the mind. The liberal arts education — composed as it is with courses in philosophy, literature, history, the natural sciences and mathematics — reaffirms the idea that life is more than a series of disconnected pursuits devoid of meaning beyond immediate enjoyment. If computers bring us anything, it is a premium on immediacy.
Computers are a poor substitute for a dedicated, well-trained and talented teacher. My teacher, the inestimable Ross M. Lence, wrote, “Teaching necessarily involves the highest forms of discovery, the awakening of the students’ minds and souls to the world of creativity and imagination. A good teacher challenges students to join in the continuous, meticulous and solitary questions of the mind.” Where in that is cloud technology or a tablet required?
Kyle Scott is a professor of political science at the University of Houston and a trustee of the Lone Star College System.